An interesting exchange between a Presbyterian and some Catholics occurred recently. A Catholic mentioned in passing that Protestants hold to the primacy of the individual conscience. The Presbyterian indignantly denied holding this view, and apparently did not think that it is affirmed by any Reformed doctrinal standard. Now this gentleman is generally well informed (based upon what I have seen), so I presume this was a simple case of having forgotten what his own standards say.
I suspect (but I do not know for a fact) that part of what motivated his strong objection to the claim is that he realizes the primacy of individual conscience reduces to “solo scriptura” immediately, and he claims to hold to “sola scriptura.” In the end, the two boil down to the same thing anyway, as was demonstrated here, but at least some Protestants (notably the Reformed) object to this (although in my opinion Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch’s argument remains unanswered so far).
Setting that aside for the moment, though, his challenge to demonstrate the claim from the Reformed standards was fairly quickly answered:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. [source]
In short: according to the Westminster Confession, no man has any standing to require anyone to believe anything that isn’t taught in the Bible. Ah, but there is the rub: who is to say what is taught in the Bible? The same document also insists that
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
According to the WCF no ecclesial body has any standing to so declare what Scripture teaches as to require assent by anyone, because the supreme court for all “controversies of religion” has but one Judge, and that is God Himself. So it seems pretty clear that primacy of the individual conscience (when it comes to discerning what truth the Bible teaches) is the definitive teaching of the WCF: a man is answerable to God alone. The claim that primacy of individual conscience is a “Protestant dogma” is not a Catholic invention.
When I was in the PCA, the principle of the primacy of individual conscience was unquestionably enforced (so to speak). Subscription to the Confession was not required for membership in the denomination; it was only required of men who held office (and even they are not obliged to hold to every jot and tittle it contains). If one isn’t obliged to agree with the WCF at all for church membership, it is pretty clear that the denomination affirms primacy of individual conscience and does not seek to compel assent.
(On a related note, the PCA recently declined to make assent to the Apostle’s Creed a condition of membership).
More importantly, if a Protestant denies the primacy of individual conscience he is effectively undercutting the Reformers. Luther famously appealed to conscience over against the authority of the Church; for a Protestant to deny the legitimacy of such an appeal is to reduce Luther from a reformer to a revolutionary who refused to accept licit authority. It would be to deny what is actually the sine qua non of the Reformation.
A third consequence of this primacy of individual conscience is that it pretty well obliterates any distinction between “solo scriptura” and “sola scriptura.” For if no man and no ecclesial body has any authority to compel assent to some doctrine or other (as the WCF asserts), then any claim for the legitimacy of “subordinate and derivative” authority amounts to nothing but a fog machine.
Now it might be asserted that the WCF doesn’t preclude compelled assent in literally every case, but rather only in cases having to do with “doctrines and commandments of men” that contradict the Bible. But the assertion begs the question, because what is at issue in such situations is precisely what the Bible actually teaches. Suppose a PCA officer announces that he does not believe in predestination because he no longer believes that it is taught in the Bible. In his eyes, any attempt by his session to compel his assent to the doctrine of predestination would contradict what the WCF teaches about liberty of conscience.
The end result is an inescapable dilemma: either the Protestant must claim the primacy of individual conscience and that principle’s concomitant doctrinal and denominational chaos, or he must accept the right of ecclesial authority to declare the content of the Faith (which inescapably demolishes any pretended legitimacy of the Reformation). There aren’t any other alternatives.